Elijah studied the captured rustlers. Six men. The body count wasn’t tight. He looked from the group of men and scanned the darkened shadows blurring the edges of the bush and buildings. Walking over to the man referred to as Reggie, the driver of the car Elijah earlier observed with the missing rustler, he stared down into the smaller man’s face.
Reggie jutted his jaw up at the lawman. A look of defiance set on the man’s features. Elijah stood damn near a foot taller and surely outweighed the scrawny rustler by at least a hundred pounds.
“Where’d your buddy get to?” Elijah held eye contact with the smaller man. The glare radiating off Reggie’s face failed to have the threatening effect the much smaller man obviously hoped for. Elijah nudged Reggie with his foot. “I haven’t got all night. You boys are in a passel of trouble enough. Make it easy on yourself. This is still Texas and you never can tell when a lynching party might break out.”
Reggie gulped a deep breath. He broke eye contact and looked down at his shuffling feet. “You best keep your mouth shut,” another of the rustlers warned. Reggie turned a worried eye to his rustler companions. His eyes stopping on the man shot in the bush while trying to escape.
“I don’t know,” he stammered. “He usually just waited by the barn. He calls the shots. He never gets his hands dirty.”
“What’s his name?”
“Smith. Bill Smith.” Reggie coughed out.
“Well that’s original,” Elijah retorted. “You sure it wasn’t John Doe?”
“That’s the name he went by,” Reggie whined. “I got no other name nor do I care. The man paid good and kept us busy on a regular basis.”
"Want us to go check the woods again, Elijah,” Oswald called. “Me and Jim. We’ll get some lights and shake out his trail.”
“I don’t think you should bother. There’s a gravel road on the other side of those trees,” Elijah pointed behind the barn. “If he got to the road, and I presume he did, he’ll be near impossible to track. You can take a car and find the road. Drive back and forth slowly. Maybe this guy will be stupid enough to show himself.”
Elijah shuffled a cigarette out of his pocket and thought while lighting the tobacco. “The trail in the bush we might as well wait until light to find. Then we can get an impression of his boot tracks. Maybe come in handy down the road.” He puffed until the tobacco glowed red. “Sam, you and Perkins cuff these boys together. When the sun comes up I want to see what kind of brands these cattle are carrying.
Noah Filcher left the gravel and angled for the bush lining the ditch. Hidden behind a small clump of scrub he bent with his hands on his knees and gulped much needed oxygen into his heaving lungs. “Son-of-a-bitch,” he muttered between gulps. Almost afraid to chance a look, he peeked from behind the thin stalks of trees back in the direction he ran expecting to see car lights bust out of the dark night.
Bent over, he allowed a little self pity to leak into his panicked brain. The increase of cattle rustling was after all his idea and now one driver crashed and burned with a load and his iron crew was about to be hauled away in the grasp of the law. Damn. He needed the money bad and suddenly the last two transports went sideways.
His shredded thoughts turned to his older sister. She would be shooting mad once he reported tonight’s loss. She warned him about the escalation of the stolen cattle. Sarah would certainly chew him a new one. And could he blame her. She had spent years setting up this operation. She wooed and married that old widowed rancher, the accident with the horse went as planned, leaving her to run the ranch and then replacing the old guy’s workers with men loyal to their cause.
Shit. It was almost too easy. He shook his head as he thought about the trail leading up to tonight’s bust. Small amounts of P/B cattle were separated from the huge herds and driven through a canyon away from the ranch and held at an old deserted farm yard that lay forgotten about. These cattle along with strays from other outfits that lost themselves in the thick bushes and gullies of the Cumberlands, well, enough to fill trailers on a regular basis and more than pay the bills. It all seemed so easy.
Greed. That’s what it was, he finally admitted. He grew accustomed to the lights and trappings of all the money the cattle brought. And debts. Huge gambling debts. The promises of pain if the payments failed. Maybe he should come clean to Sarah. She’d understand. At least he’d be able to explain the sudden need to move more cattle for sale.
Elijah pushed off from the fence pole his back rested against. The coming of daylight brought a new perspective to the deserted ranch in the middle of nowhere. Rubbing the back of his hand across his tired eyes, Elijah struck another cigarette. A puff of smoke drifted with the morning breeze. The suspects left minutes ago in the back of two SUV,s along with their escorts. The only men remaining were the original team of the TSCRA Special Rangers.
“What have we got here, Jim?” Elijah wondered closer to the penned cattle.
“A mixture of brands. Mostly a P/B. A couple of others, but only one or two in number.”
“You had a good look over all of them?” Elijah questioned.
“The lights still a little scarce but the brands are plain enough to see. Why?”
“This is the second truckload of stolen cattle I’ve come across bearing mainly that brand. Like someone is mostly concentrating their efforts to steal the P/B blind.”
“Takes all kinds. You know that Elijah,” Oswald joined the conversation.
“How many years we been doing this. Maybe the P/B has a change of ownership or something as such.”
“Yeah. Maybe. But I don’t think so. Take some pictures and send them to me, will you?”
“Sure thing. What you going to do.”
“Track down the owners of the P/B. See if the ranch changed or is in the process of changing hands or as you so eloquently put it, something else?”
Pulling onto the highway, Elijah talked to the truck’s hands free service calling the number he saved into his phone’s memory from a previous call. The phone rang on for several seconds before a female voice announced that Joshua and Sarah Boutõn of the P/B Ranch were unavailable.
Elijah looked at the LED numbers on the truck’s dash. Quarter to six in the morning. Should be the same time in the Cumberlands where Joshua’s P/B Ranch was located. He shrugged. Maybe ranchers in Tennessee didn’t find the need to rise so early in the morning.
“Hey Joshua. Elijah Sackett here. We talked a few weeks past. Found another truckload of cattle and most of the stock is carrying your brand. Like to get your side of the story. Something don’t feel right.
You know, been thinking of taking a drive down your way anyhow. I got a full schedule today but tomorrow I think I’ll head in that direction. If I get a good start should be there mid to late afternoon. You might catch me on the way over. Call me back if this causes a problem otherwise take care and I’ll see you soon.”
Elijah ended the call, his mind raced ahead with planning the trip two states east. Shoving his cowboy hat back off his forehead, a slight smile climbed his face as he stuck a cigarette between his lips. Be all right to meet the guy. Maybe even a long lost cousin. Why not have the state pay for his visit. It was for business after all.
Sweat leaked from under the band of his hat. One hand tight on the wheel, Joshua lifted the hat by the brim and swiped his sleeve across his forehead cutting off the salty drops before they crept into his eyes.
“Hotter than a bride left standing at the alter,” he shouted over the drone of the quad to Old Tom Wiggins when the two stopped atop a rise. Joshua’s heart gained a beat when the image of the lush green valley splayed out into view below the hill. The caps of the mountains behind threw long shadows across the far end of the meadow darkening the trees at the bottom of the next climb.
“That’s a mighty pretty sight,” he commented. Hi attention focused down the hill toward the huge swarm of cattle feasting on the long grass. “How many head you figure laying before us?” He asked the old ranch hand.
“Long guess, could be a few hundred, no more I don’t think.” Tom answered. “Of the ones we can see, that is. Those trees at the end in the shadows are no doubt housing a good number.”
“I agree,” Joshua said, the smile of rediscovering the beauty of the valley slipped from his face. “How are things away from the ranch house these days, Tom? We don’t really talk like we used to. Too busy I guess.” Joshua cringed at the feeble excuse. The loss of the use of his legs left a funk that ate away at his desire to associate with anyone.
The feeling grew worse over time as he spun deeper into the abyss. Sarah acted as a go between from him and the workers. Unfortunately, the more she enabled his internalization, the more he regressed.
The call the other day caused a flicker in his brain and spurred something long forgotten, thus the impromptu trek into the Cumberlands and a chance to see how the P/B Ranch faired without his control.
“Well. Things have changed over the years but who am I to complain. An old guy like me still able to straddle a horse and have someone pay. Can’t expect much else.”
“Things changed for the good or bad?”
“It’s really not my place to say. Most of the old hands have quit. The new ones aren’t as personable but they show up and work.” Old Tom confessed, keeping the worst of his thoughts wrapped up close to his chest. How did he know what this trip would produce. He hadn’t seen Joshua for more than a few minutes at a time over the last so many years and now all of a sudden this unexpected trip. How much of friends did they remain or was Joshua’s young wife busy behind the scenes. Too old to bother looking for another job, Tom decided to remain passive.
“Things are good for an old guy like me,” Old Tom continued. “Look around. The mountains, blue sky and green pastures full of healthy beef. Don’t need more than that to be happy.”
“I’m glad you feel that way Tom, but you wouldn’t hesitate to tell me other wise if you felt things around the ranch were…maybe not operating like they should?”
Tom Wiggins narrowed his eyes as he looked down at his boss. What kind of game is he playing, Tom wondered. “I’d tell you Joshua. We been friends a long time. Wouldn’t feel right to lie to you.” The old ranch hand studied his friend’s face before lifting his eyes back to the surrounding scenery.
“Line cabins waiting at the edge of the trees. Be getting late by the time we arrive. Might as well spend the evening. Get a good start in the morning.” Old Tom happily changed the subject.
A small group of new hires greeted the two as they rambled close to the line cabin. A pit set a few yards from the house contained the beginnings of a fire. Tom tied the reins for his horse around a pole of the corral then walked over to the quad. In the back he lifted and unfolded the wheelchair, setting close to the driver’s side of the quad. A grunt left the old ranch hand’s lips as he helped lift his friends paralyzed body from the bike’s seat and then lowered it into the chair. Tom pushed the chair away from the quad and rolled it close to the fire.
“You okay here for now?” He asked, “Give me a few minutes to unsaddle and wipe down my horse and I’ll be back.”
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.” Joshua replied. His gaze hovering between the three younger men gathered around the small camp fire.
“How you boys doing?” He started the conversation. The front of the line cabin sat back of his view. The opening door caught his attention as a fourth man stepped into the doorway. The man held a cell phone to his ear. The distance too far to hear the conversation. Joshua met the man’s gaze before the fourth man ducked back into the cabin and disappeared from sight.
“Hows the food around here?” Joshua let a smile light his face while addressing the three riders gathered by the fire. “I’m starved. Seems like I haven’t eaten for days,” he joked.
“Foods good enough,” one of the young riders replied. “Specially tonight,” the man stood. “You are certainly lucky, it's my turn to cook.”
“How about you two,” Joshua swung the conversation over to the two other men parked beside the fire. “How you guys makin out. The cattle are fat and happy.” He said referring to the herd he passed on the way to the cabin. “Seems you boys are doing a bang up job.”
“Thanks,” the two mumbled in unison.
“Not much younger stock around?” Joshua stated.
“Probably into the trees. You know how those calves can be. Always playin’ around.” Came the answer.
“Yeah. No doubt. Well, what’s for supper. Did I tell you boys how hungry I am?”
Joshua took one last look toward the cabin before shifting the quad into gear and rolling onto a trail leading back of the line cabin. The morning dew glistened off the black roll cage, forming rivulets and running in small streams down the bars. Joshua shook with the morning chill scrunching his shoulders deeper into his coat.
“Be a good push today to reach the next cabin. Some of the trail won’t be so hospitable to your machine,” Old Tom warned, his mouth busy worrying a toothpick. “You still want to do this?” The ranch hand asked.
“Yes,” came the single worded reply. “Time to get back in the saddle,” Joshua allowed a small smile, “Metaphorically speaking.” He pointed to the leather seat of the bike.
“The route gets rough from here on in.” Tom stated.
“I seem to remember that. Can we make it. I mean, driving this thing, can I make it?”
Old Tom swished the toothpick around a bit before gazing from the quad to the trail leading higher into the mountains.
“Sure. Why and the hell not. We’re old, not useless.” He added.
“That’s the spirit old friend,” Joshua nodded and pressed the throttle. The machined whined into the still morning. Behind, crowded along the door and window of the cabin, the three younger ranch hands looked on at their departing guests.
“We got our work cut out for us,” the fourth man said, his fingers busy punching in a set of numbers on his phone.